I’VE BEEN UNDERTAKING more native plant-focused garden transformations in recent years, as I know many of you listening have, too. I spoke recently to Alan Branhagen, a lifelong naturalist with a background in landscape architecture, who’s been making wildish gardens for decades, both at home and in his public-garden career.
Alan and I spoke about some of his own native-plant adventures, and he highlighted some native annuals for us that can play various key roles in our gardens, as they do at his place (above, Euphorbia marginata, snow on the mountain).
Alan is Director of Operations at the 1,200-acre Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in suburban Minneapolis. He’s the former Director of Horticulture at Powell Gardens in Kansas City. And he is the author of two books on Midwestern natives: “Native Plants of the Midwest,” which is a comprehensive guide to the best 500 garden species, and “The Midwest Native Plant Primer” (affiliate links), part of a series that also has a Southeast and a Northeast edition.
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Read along as you listen to the July 25, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
using more natives, with alan branhagen
Margaret Roach: Congratulations on books, books, books—and you’re a busy guy [laughter]. So, we got to know each other recently because we worked on a “New York Times” garden column together, which was fun. And I loved the story you told me when we were working on it, about one of your first sort of aha moments about native annuals. Because really, how many of us—quick test everybody listening—can name any native annuals?
Alan Branhagen: Yeah, I was working on Nature Conservancy-funded projects for the Iowa Department of Conservation, actually doing bird surveys and in between… You have to do those early in the morning, and then we’d go visit all these natural areas. And it was at Loess Bluff Prairie in Western Iowa, and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, here is snow-on-the-mountain growing on this prairie.” [Laughter.]
Of course, I’d known that plant as a lifelong gardener, even though I was probably 20 at the time or even maybe in my teens, but I mean, that was that aha moment. And I looked, yes, it is a native plant. And of course it is one that I did cover in my book.
Margaret: And so, it’s a Euphorbia and it’s very dramatically variegated. So, people have seen it probably in seed catalogs and so forth. What is it, Euphorbia marginata? Is that right?
Alan: Correct. Yeah, Euphorbia marginata [photo, top of page].
Margaret: Yeah. And so, there are native annuals—and yet, again, if we did a quick quiz, I mean, I couldn’t… Off the top of my head, I had trouble when I first thought about it, really naming many of them from my area.
And a little later in the show, we’ll tell people how to find the ones for their area. I’ve got some tips for that.
But you also told me about a book that was published, I think, in 1976, which has the craziest title ever, a book by Hal Bruce: “How to Grow Wildflowers and Wild Shrubs and Trees in Your Own Garden.” [Laughter.] That was inspirational to you, title notwithstanding.
Alan: That’s right, yeah. One of my teachers lent me that book and I read through it, and it was just so inspiring to me. And I quickly started planting more native plants in my yard and actually took out some of the non-native or invasive ones. And so, this is way back when I was a teenager, I was 14 then, so it was 1976 when that came out.
Margaret: Right, right. So, you’ve been really doing these experiments that, as I was mentioning, I’ve been doing more and more myself. And I did some early on, decades ago, but more and more the last 10 years especially, as I think a lot of people are.
Tell us just… You sent me a picture the other day, a snapshot of your house. I think it might have been the front yard. And where there was… Well, where one would normally expect a lawn, there was like Echinacea pallida and fleabane [above]. I mean, it was like, “Whoa.”
So, tell us just a little bit about the garden where you are now, where your home landscape, what that looks like compared to an average landscape.
Alan: Yes, I absolutely do walk the talk. So, yes, I bought my house five years ago, when I moved here to Minnesota to accept my job here. And I bought a home in a traditional landscape, at least the front yard. The backyard does bump up against a forested corridor, which is really nice. But the front yard was just a traditional landscape, and actually a fairly large front yard. I mean, there were yews and daylilies and irrigated turf grass [laughter].
So, very first thing I did was rip out the daylilies. I did keep a couple of the yews by the house. And it faces the southwest slope, a very hot southwest slope of really well-drained soil. And I quickly designed some beds that are really prairie-themed to go in that area. And it has been a smashing success, as I shared with you.
So, I didn’t do the typical matrix planting. I kind of planted key structural plants and then let some things self-sow and that leads into…
You mentioned the daisy fleabane that showed up [above]. And that’s one of those annuals that I think most gardeners are going to run into that plant. It’s just going to come up in wherever they disturb the soil. And of course, I leave that, because it just adds such a great splash of contrasting white color. It’s great for pollinators, and it can be a little rambunctious. So, I edit it a little bit where I don’t want it, but it’s one of those that you really want to celebrate.
Margaret: So, you said matrix planting, now just tell me quickly what… You didn’t do that and what is that sort of?
Alan: I mean, that’s really popular right now, where you don’t use a lot of mulch. You plant structural plants, big, long-lived things like Baptisia that everyone knows. And then you put in seasonal color, plants that have like a seasonal two-week bloom period in between that, and then groundcover. And the hot groundcover right now is sedges to actually really act as your living mulch.
And it is a really good way to do a small garden set up, but it can be pricey, and that was my reason. It’s like I had to work a little more overtime with nature, so. [Above, mounds of Baptisia in Alan’s garden, not yet blooming, with Echinacea and a little Gaillardia]
Margaret: Right, O.K. So, we could do the matrix thing, especially if we’re making a bed. We have these three primary elements, the permanent big guys, the in-betweens that do some filler work, and then the groundcover layer.
Alan: Yeah, and the annuals fit in that seasonal color, and I actually did do a little play with that. I know we’re going to talk a little bit about some of the non-local native ones that I do use for that.
Margaret: I know. We can’t control ourselves [laughter].
So, speaking of placeholders, so here you are, you had this lawn and irrigated lawn on top of it. And that was going to go, and you started to put in the new things, but the new things don’t all… Especially perennial things, don’t take hold quickly and fill in quickly. So, speaking of the annuals that could be nurse crop/cover crop/fillers, temporary companions, what are some of the ones that you have used either there at home or in your work?
Alan: Yeah. Black-eyed Susans is really a classic one that I first started using 35 years ago when I worked at the Forest Reserve District restoring prairies, large areas. And it would show to the public that you’re actually doing something, because the first season, it’ll come up and bloom, and yeah, act as a nurse crop for the longer-lived perennials that are coming in underneath.
And then, of course, another really good one is partridge pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata [above]. and it really comes into bloom in late summer, those beautiful yellow flowers that are buzz-pollinated by bees. I mean, it will be an audible experience besides a visual one [laughter] because it attracts so many bees. And again, since it’s buzz-pollinated, they’re actually shaking the flower to get the pollen, and you can hear it.
Margaret: And that one was featured, speaking of the series of primers that you did, the Midwest volume of, in the Northeastern one, that plant was also recommended for that use there. So, it’s a widespread… Has utilitarian uses in a widespread area of the country, that partridge pea.
Alan: Yeah. And of course, I still have both of those plants in my current landscape. Actually, I gave up on my kitchen garden because of deer and rabbits, and I converted to pollinator landscape, and that’s what I used to help nurse that along. And of course, it’s already went through other level of succession. And I think I even shared a picture of the partridge pea is in between the crack of my front walk and my front step of my front porch [laughter]. And you have a nice, little greeting plant along there. Then I just edited what I don’t want.
Margaret: So, you have probably less of them than when they were being actively used as a nurse crop for the stuff to come later that was taking time to develop, but you still have elements of them.
Margaret: Yeah, O.K. And I think you told me about a Monarda, a bee balm relative that I’d never heard of before.
Alan: Right. At Powell Gardens, again, I started working there 25 years ago, and one of my first projects was creating this large parking-lot landscape where we, again, restored a grassland community there. And we used black-eyed Susans, but we also used a couple more Southwestern, Midwest natives there.
Yeah, the lemon bergamot, the Monarda citriodora [above] and the Plains coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria, we also used in that mix. And again, they created that first-season splash of color. The lemon bergamot, the Monarda, is just a really showy, showy plant and really, really rich in nectar, attracting lots of interesting bees and pollinators, so.
Margaret: A lot of those mint relative things do that and then some of the other things you’ve mentioned are composites or sunflower or daisy relatives. And those are also super… I mean, the mint things and the composites are super for pollinators.
Alan: You bet.
Margaret: So, it makes sense that these would do a really good job.
Alan: And again, they faded out over time, except where maybe woodchuck dug a little hole and you create a disturbance [laughter]. And then those things would pop up in that spot. Of course, that’s pretty much their role in nature. They’re the earth-healers.
Margaret: You call them earth-healers. I love that because where a disturbance occurs from whatever, either a small, as you just said, an animal digging a hole, to something much bigger, like a major weather event or whatever, the annuals rush in to take up the space. Right?
Alan: Yup, yup.
Margaret: And again, maybe we should now just say to people, these aren’t all going to be native for everyone listening, gardens and so forth. And it’s going to take some homework, like we said in the “New York Times” story together. It’s going to take some homework.
If you really want to find ones that are native to your zone, I found that the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower website, wildflower.org, that they have this page of what they call collections. You can go there and it’s like collections of different… You can filter for your state, check the box for your state. And then when you get there, you can then check another box for the lifespan of the plants you’re looking for. Like if you’re looking for perennials, it can filter for perennials, biennials or annuals. So, you can check annuals and it’s amazing. You get a list of the best native annuals for your state.
I mean, again, it’s not totally hyper-local, but that’s pretty close.
Or you could go to your state wildflower society website [find yours], some of those have plant lists, too. So, I mean, all the things we’re speaking about are not going to be for everybody, is what we’re saying. But some of us use ones that are from other parts of the country, too [laughter]. So, tell us about some of those, like you and your California poppy. Right?
Alan: I can’t be without my California poppies and then here, they didn’t do very well this year because we had such a shockingly dry spring. But on a normal year, they are really important component to my front yard landscape. Right as the last snows are melting in spring, I sprinkle the seeds out, usually in the bare areas along the edge of the beds or whatever, in between plantings. And of course, they are cool-season annuals and come up and bloom in early summer and then just are so stunning.
The other one is a California bluebell, Phacelia campanularia; I just wouldn’t be without. I mean, once you’ve seen that in bloom and how incredibly gorgeous blue that is, that’s another one. And of course, it makes a great companion with the brilliant orange California poppies, so-
Margaret: And do you sow that the same way to do that?
Alan: Yes. Yeah. Same time, yeah. These are… People get this idea, don’t plant stuff till after danger of frost [laughter]. Well, you’ll fail on these cool-season annuals. You need to get them in early. And one of the best ways, if you have snow in your area, is let it go in with the snow, because I think that helps. The last freeze-and-thaw cycles help it get into the soil just the right way, so that you get good germination.
Margaret: Now, what zone are you where you are? You’re near Minneapolis, yeah?
Alan: Yeah. We used to be Zone 4, but really, the core metro and actually where my garden is, is Zone 5 now. I can readily grow Zone 5 things now, so.
Margaret: O.K., so those are two that are from California [laughter], as their names seem to tell us. And here, I’m in New York State and I have this obsession with one that is from, I think, Texas and maybe parts of Florida. And I don’t know, a couple other spots. The silverleaf sunflower, I don’t know if you’ve ever grown it. I think it’s Helianthus argophyllus. And it’s this big plant. It’s just gorgeous and it’s furry and silvery all over. And then it just produces these candelabras of flowers, of gold flowers. It’s wonderful.
The great thing is that with that one, like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has been selling the seed, and Annie’s Annuals for years has been selling young plants of it, that you can get by mail order. So, some of these are available and some take, again, a little more homework to find.
Alan: I really want to try it now [laughter].
Margaret: Oh, boy. Oh, boy. You’re going to… It’s a stunner. It’s eccentric. It’s not symmetrical. Right? I mean, another native annual that’s widespread, I think, nowadays is just the American sunflower, the annual sunflower, Helianthus annuus. And so, in the same way that the species of that is like, it’s not this one stalk with one big head, it’s like this crazy thing, right?
Alan: Yup. With multiple flowers, yeah. But stunning, yup. The state flower of Kansas.
Margaret: Right. Exactly, exactly. Yeah. And so, are there others that you’re using that are from areas way outside the Midwest?
Alan: Well, the Gaillardia pulchella is another one that I let… It seems to self-sow in bare spaces between. But for the hottest part of summer, those brilliant red flowers with the yellow edging are just absolutely stunning. And of course, one of my absolute favorites, and anyone who tries it is going to be sold with it, is American basket-flower, Centaurea americana, our native bachelor button [above].
Margaret: Oh, right.
Alan: It is a wow. And Seed Savers in my hometown of Decorah, Iowa, sold it this year. I was so thrilled, and what a great plant. That one doesn’t come back very well for me. So, I usually have to start a few early, well, in late winter or early spring. And then I put them in little peat-pots and then set them where I want them. But the flowers are like 4 inches across and lavender, though there is a white form of it.
And once you see the bumblebees, and the sweat bees, and the Monarch butterflies, and all the things that are enjoying that, you’ll be sold on it. And then even when it goes to seed, the Goldfinches are feeding on it. And the seed stock holds well through winter and is actually pretty attractive in the winter.
Margaret: And those flowers are like 4 inches and they’re furry almost, fuzzy. Yeah, Select Seeds sells the seed, too. So, that’s one that I start, like you said, that Seed Savers has it now, too. And I’m seeing it come around, being showcased, which is great, is really great.
So, some, just like you mentioned, fleabane, the annual fleabane, Erigeron annuus, that just if you dig a hole somewhere in much of the country, it’s going to show up [laughter]. And there’s other fleabanes, too, but that’s the annual one that we’re talking about. And jewelweed is the same way, the annual, the native Impatiens, that’s pretty widespread. I think those are both in 40-something states, according to the range maps or something.
But the funny thing with those, there’s no seed sources for them. Do you know what I mean?
Margaret: You can’t really buy seed. Now, in England, you can buy seed for annual fleabane, our annual fleabane.
Alan: Yes. They gush over it, yes [laughter].
Margaret: They think it’s gorgeous. Right? So, there you go, folks. There’s the validation that it’s a great plant, right?
Margaret: Yeah, yeah. So, everyone just pulls these things out. They see jewelweed, they’re like, “Oh, my goodness. It’s going to take over the whole yard. I’m getting rid of it.” It’s in a moist, shady or semi-shady space. What do you tell us that you think, with the experience you have of all these years, what do you do? What’s the hand that you take to that plant or to fleabane?
Alan: Well, I edit, but I wouldn’t be without. I mean, the jewelweeds [above] are just so much fun and especially children and adults enjoying them. The other name of it is touch-me-not because when the seeds are getting close to ripe or the fruits are getting close to ripe, you touch it and of course, it explodes, which is always a lot of fun. And then the little seeds inside, they’re actually edible. And if you scratch the surface of them, there are just these gorgeous robin’s-eggs blue underneath, and have this oil of wintergreen aroma to them.
But the flowers themselves, I mean, it’s like the spotted jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, is just one of the favorite nectar sources of our ruby-throated hummingbird here in the East. And if you have a nice patch of it, a hummingbird will guard it just like a hummingbird feeder. But yeah, it can be overly rambunctious. So, we do edit them here, and make sure that they don’t encroach on any other special plants.
Margaret: I’ve picked two spots. They come up everywhere here, and mice, I think, move the seeds around and who knows what. But I have picked two spots that are like: I’m going to let a stand of them happen, big spots, because I have a couple. Like you, my place is almost the same size as yours, a little over 2 acres. And I’ve identified those and I feel O.K. about editing them elsewhere, but I’ve… So, there’s two good stands of them. And so, that’s the orange one, capensis. And then there’s the yellow one sometimes in some places, more Eastern places, too.
Alan: Yeah, Impatiens pallida, at least in my area, it’s more I see the bumblebees using it. Right. And it’s usually more in a mesic forest, a moist forest rather than… The capensis is usually in more wetter areas in our local area.
Margaret: We hear it’s pretty widespread, but it’s always the soil has to have some moisture to it. Not wet, but you know what I mean? It can’t be baking, either, and it’s shady, usually shady. So, yeah. So I want to just talk about some that you wish people knew more.
I mean, some that you talked about to me, Palafoxia [above], Collinsia, a crazy Eryngium—I didn’t even know these. I’d never heard the genus name, let alone seen the plant. So, tell me about some of those.
Alan: Well, Collinsia verna is the blue-eyed Mary and it’s a winter annual. So, it actually comes up in the fall and blooms in the spring, and then it’s gone. But oh, my gosh, if you’ve ever experienced it in the wild, when you get big patches of it, usually in mesic floodplain forests. And it was both found where I worked in Illinois and in Missouri. It is just delightful. The only place I’ve seen it really successful in a garden is at the English Woodland Garden at Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. So, that’s one, I think, people really, really, really should look at.
And then Palafoxia, I ran into that in Missouri, because it’s mainly an Ozark native and we use it in our living wall, our rock-garden display, and it would just self-sow. And it’s like this pink baby’s breath. It just is a phenomenal annual. And I know it’s naturalized even in the northern Indiana and so on. So, it must do well over a wide area. I haven’t tried it yet in Minnesota, though I plan to, and it loves it hot and dry.
And then, oh, my gosh, if you ever see the Leavenworth’s eryngium, Eryngium leavenworthii, from… well, it’s on the west side of Kansas City and south into the Great Plains. They look like these stunning, purple pineapples, the flowers do. It’s one of those that if you have the hottest, driest, hell-strip spot that you think nothing will grow, that plant will love it. At Powell Gardens, the only place it would really self-sow was in a gravel space between the greenhouses, but what another plant that, yeah, please try it. Again, but you have to have full, intense sun and a hot spot for it.
Margaret: The Palafoxia and the Collinsia, so the blue-eyed Mary [above] and the Palafoxia, I saw that Missouri Wildflowers, the seed company—you know them, I guess, huh?
Alan: Yes. Well, they sell all kinds of Missouri original native plants, but yeah, they will send you the seeds of those.
Margaret: Yeah. So, that was a great source because I went, after you turned me onto some of these things and I was reading about them. I looked for sources and sure enough, they had a lot and I didn’t know that nursery. So, that was great.
So what other things besides that great looking front yard. What other crazy things are you doing over there [laughter]?
Alan: Well, let me see. I guess, more of the same. We want to get rid of this drought that we’re stuck in.
Margaret: Yeah, you guys are really… And every time I complain about no rain here, I think of you and people elsewhere in the country who are in true depths of drought and yeah, it’s unbelievable.
Alan: Yup. I think, If you want to cover one last plant, of course, the plain sneezeweed, Helenium amarum [above], another little ferny one. That is especially good for the edges of beds or against paths and sidewalks. That’s another one that will self-sow, so.
Margaret: Yeah, it is. It’s beautiful—and beautiful foliage, too. So, what we’ll do is, as I said, I’ll give lots of links also to remind people that they can do the homework and find the ones for their region, or try once from other regions, too, like we crazy people are always doing. But thank you so much, Alan. I’m so glad that we’ve met and I hope we’ll do more things together. So, much appreciation, and I hope it rains.
more on native annuals
(Author photo by Susie Hopper. Other photos except silverleaf sunflower by Alan Branhagen.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 25, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).